Since Halloween is the day after tomorrow and tonight I’m headed to a costume party dressed up as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, a practitioner of voodoo, I thought I’d darken your day (or night) with some musings on the concept of evil.

Frankly, in my philosophical musings, I’ve avoided the origin of evil.  I’ve read a bit of Augustine, a bit of Hume, but the left side of my brain leaves much to be desired; it is a virtual empty lot where tumbleweed tumbles and winds of distraction drown out the lecturer who argues in soporific sentences like these:

From [the idea that nature is not as good as its creator] there follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good.  A good that wholly lacks an evil aspect is totally good.  Where there is some evil in a thing, its good is defective or defectible (sic).  Thus, there can be no evil where there is no good. This leads us to a surprising conclusion: that, since every being, in so far as it is a being, is good, if we can say a defective thing is bad, it would seem to mean that we are saying that what is evil is good, that only what is good is ever evil and that there is no evil apart from something good.

                                                        Augustine: Enchiridion

Illustration by Wesley Moore: “The worlds revolve like ancient women,/ Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

Like I said, my analytical skills leave much to be desired, but Augustine’s argument that evil is a privation of good (thus letting God off the hook for evil’s existence) strikes me as whistling past the boneyard.

Hume ain’t buying it:

The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!

                                                             Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Ignoring the incredibly complicated question of why a morally perfect Deity would allow evil into his creation, the Hebrew myth of Lucifer’s Fall does a pretty damned[1] good job of capturing evil’s innate human cause – pride and territorial dominance.  

In a sense, we can attribute the Fall to a kinghell[2] case of sibling rivalry, Lucifer’s jealousy of Yahweh’s power (or in the Miltonic version, the creation of Jesus as favorite son).  Of course, that other pillar of Western Civilization, the Hellenic, also has much to say about the evils of hubris, the harmatia of many an ancient tragic hero and contemporary public servant.


If we’re to accept Hume’s bleak assessment (finished in 1776, eighty-three years before Darwin published Origen of Species), then perhaps a peek at our maimed and abortive cousins chimpanzees might shed some light.   

Territory and sex seem to be the two main motives for chimpanzee murders.  Clara Moskowitz is a little easer reading than Augustine or Hume:

“The take-home is clear and simple,” said researcher John Mitani of the University of Michigan. “Chimpanzees kill each other. They kill their neighbors. Up until now, we have not known why. Our observations indicate that they do so to expand their territories at the expense of their victims.”

Sex is also a motive, especially in infanticide.  Further down the chain, langur monkeys, like their more sophisticated chimpanzee cousins, also engage in infanticide:

If the alpha langur is not successful [in defending his place in the pecking order], the young males then take over the troop, and systemically and brutally kill infant langurs, smashing them against the trees, crushing their skulls, until all infants are dead.

The young female langurs in the troop remain unhurt, as they are the love object of the young males.

The young males then begin to seat themselves at the head of their own helm, to take many females who will then bear offspring only to them.

Biologically, it is important for the band of marauding young males to to kill the infants, because the infants are preventing the females from bearing new young.

The females are suckling the infants, and by so doing, are incapable of having new infants.

                                                         Kathryn Esplin “Why Do Chimpanzee Murder

We share ~ 98.7% of our DNA with chimps, interestingly enough, the same percentage we share with bonobos, who are less studied than chimps.  They and chimps were at one time the same species, but after the Congo River formed, they separated into two distinct species, chimps organizing along patriarchal lines and bonobos along matriarchal lines.  

Can you guess which species relieves its tension through sex and which through violence?

So I say we let Eve and Pandora off the hook. What do Charles Whitman (University of Texas August 1966), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech 2007), and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook December 2012) have in common?

Y chromosomes, a sense of entitlement, thin skin, territorial insecurity, and pride.

Happy Halloween!

Dr. John, the Night Tripper

[1] Forgive the execrable pun, loves.

[2] I’m on a roll.

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